Field Research and
Summary of Fieldwork and Case Studies 2015–2018
Initial Field Research
The theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics was developed via field research by Associate Professor Brenda Cowan in 2015. This initial study examined potential areas of confluence between object interpretation and meaning making in museum practice with objects as used in therapeutic practice. Grounding the study in the body of scholarship defining the phenomenological and evocative nature of objects, their influence in the lives of people, and the characteristics that shape those meanings, I explored the reason for those meanings: their fundamental psychological underpinnings. Converging the disciplines of museum and object studies, psychology and psychotherapy, I followed the premise that people have an innate and necessary relationship with objects that I call “primal dialogue,” that is essential to personal meaning making and to an individual’s psychological health.
I determined that object-based therapy would be an appropriate and unique arena for study and conducted field research in the use of objects at an adolescent therapeutic wilderness program in North Carolina (Trails Carolina), and also interviewed Ross Laird, a psychotherapist and expert in the making of objects as a means of self-discovery and actualization in Vancouver, British Columbia. The therapeutic work with objects at these venues correlated with research in the roles and interpretation of objects in museum exhibitions, as well as objects in relation to sociocultural identification, self-identification, power, and humanity. The study’s focus was placed on self-made objects and those found in nature, as opposed to branded and commercially mass-produced objects. At Trails Carolina (Lake Toxaway, North Carolina), interviews were conducted with the facility’s Clinical Director, Director of Students, a Therapist and Field Manager. Additionally, two days were spent in the field with a group of 9 adolescents engaged in the therapeutic process where observations were made of object-based individual and group therapy sessions, as well as wilderness lifestyle practices. At the Museum of Cultural Anthropology (Vancouver, British Columbia) I interviewed Dr. Ross Laird about his approach to creativity-based therapeutic practice and his expertise regarding the psychological impact of objects. The primary research findings resulted in the new theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics that illustrates how objects are inherent to an individual’s wellbeing and psychological health. Further details can be accessed at: www.psychotherapeuticobjectdynamics.com
Empirical Research with the National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Following the initial fieldwork and development of the theory, in 2016 I formed a partnership with Jason McKeown MS, LMFT, CPE, DCC, Director of Clinical and Family Services Trails Carolina, and Ross Laird, PhD, Interdisciplinary Creative Process, MA, Counseling Psychology. We entered into an empirical research phase to seek evidence for the theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics by way of concrete examples in a museum environment. In coordination with the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (New York, NY), a case study was conducted with object donors to the institution’s collection. https://www.911memorial.org
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum was selected because of its unique collections-donor relationship that suggested explicit demonstrations of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics. Eleven in-depth interviews were conducted with five widows, three survivors (including one who also lost a husband and one who lost a cousin), one mother who lost a son, one first responder, and one on-location journalist. The case study explored the therapeutic impacts of the participation of the object donors in the institution’s acquisitions, the personal identification of the donors with their donated objects, and the psychological experience of the donors through the process of donation.
The interviewing methodology utilized a heuristic approach focused on generating qualitative data that captured participants’ reflections on the idea of donation, the event itself, the meaning(s) of the donated object(s), and what if any, healing/meaning was found in the dynamic object experience. The data collected reinforced commonly held understandings of the meaningfulness of objects in everyday life, the potency of objects within museum environments, the value of participation, co-creation and open-content generation in exhibitions, and identified particular modes of design that are psychologically and interpretively impactful. Multiple subjects referred to their objects as “witnesses” to the event and to their own experience, and as the means by which the story of the event and their roles within it will be told. Most subjects referred to the need for the objects to keep the memory of their loved one alive, and/or the need for the objects to provide an accurate accounting of their experience. Most subjects referred to their objects as carrying a great deal of weight (responsibility). Subjects referred to the Memorial & Museum as a place where their objects will be kept safe, protected, and in that regard the institution is a “therapeutic ally.”
Our review of the data revealed multiple examples of Associating, Releasing/Unburdening, Synergizing, Touching, Composing, Making and Giving/Receiving. Anecdotes from the subjects regarding the meanings of the objects, their relationships with the objects, their decisions for and actions of donating, and the impacts of those experiences provided supportive illustrations of the Dynamics as well as further information regarding the healthful and healing impacts of the donation process. Throughout the interviews, subjects also provided information that firmly represented established object characteristics and experiences including: objects as repositories of experience, bearing witness, perrisological resonators, life companions, materiality, calls to action, self identity, life continuum, and primal power. Detailed documentation can be accessed at: www.psychotherapeuticobjectdynamics.com
Empirical Research with the War Childhood Museum
In 2017 a third phase of research was conducted to further examine, contribute to and refine the theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics via case study in a museum environment. Building upon the data collected from the National September 11 Memorial and Museum case study, the researchers sought to broaden the subject and geography of their empirical work, and expand their sample to include museum visitors and staff in addition to object donors. The War Childhood Museum (WCM), Sarajevo Bosnia-Herzgovina (http://museum.warchildhood.com) was identified as a logical collaborator with which to further the study. The WCM is a new and unique institution whose collection is solely comprised of personal objects donated by individuals who were children during the war in Bosnia (1991-1995) and whose intent is to contribute to healing and wellbeing in its participants.
Following the same methodology and heuristic process, seventeen in-depth interviews were conducted at the museum site with ten object donors and seven post-visit audience members, followed by an informal interview with five members of the museum staff and leadership. Profound expressions of pride, ownership, agency, resilience and community overwhelmingly emerged as the most prevalent and coalescing themes of this study. Throughout the interviews with object donors and visitors these feelings and convictions were strongly and repeatedly described, and they were likewise echoed in the subsequent informal interview with museum staff and leadership. Subjects expressed strongly felt beliefs that the War Childhood Museum is an agent of personal and societal change where their singular contributions, stories and voices altogether express an impactful message of fortitude, endurance and strength unique to their unifying experience of a war childhood. Their participation with the museum is seen as a means of illustrating the innocence and endurance of childhood, and projecting a message of resilience and power specifically to and for the people of Sarajevo and Bosnia, as well as to others currently experiencing the tragedies of war elsewhere in the world. Their contributions of personal objects and stories, and the broader work of the museum, are not viewed solely as markers of historical events, but as vehicles through which to engage in positive civic action. The experience of object donation and viewing the collection encouraged a deep kind of openness, a perception of the unity of human experience, and an urgency to contribute, in small and personal ways, to healing the world through empathy and connection.
Illustration of numerous object characteristics emerged throughout the study including objects as repositories of experience, numinous, bearing witness, perrisological resonators, life companions, materiality, calls to action, self identity, life continuum, and primal power. Evidence of the seven tenets of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics were found in the data analysis including Synergizing, Associating, Touching, Making, Giving/Receiving, Composing, and Releasing/Unburdening.
Further details can be accessed at: www.psychotherapeuticobjectdynamics.com
Empirical Research with the Derby Museum & Art Gallery
The fourth phase of research was conducted in June 2018 to further examine, contribute to and refine the theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics via case study in a museum environment. Building upon the data collected from the first 3 studies, the researchers sought to broaden the sample and geography of their empirical work, and expand their pool of subjects to include museum visitors, volunteers, staff and object contributors. The Derby Museum & Art Gallery in Derby, England, was selected due to its innovative approach to museum participation, breadth of cultural artifacts as well as everyday objects within its collections, and its open source project titled “Objects of Love.” “Objects of Love” is a digital collection of personal objects and their meanings contributed by global participants, presented as a digital display within the institution’s World Cultures exhibition gallery. Another important factor in the selection of Derby Museums is its highly socioeconomically, culturally and ethnically diverse population, including a large population of immigrants from around the world, and a growing number of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Brenda Cowan, Ross Laird and Jason McKeown conducted interviews with 35 individuals from across these diverse populations, including contributors to “Objects of Love,” museum staff, volunteers, and visitors post-visit.
Unique to this study was the emergence of a seventh Object Dynamic: Touching. A majority of subjects described an object experience involving the action of touching or holding, most often with their hand or fingers. Touching was described or demonstrated as either a conscious or unconscious activity when the subject was thinking about or explaining their object’s meaning in relationship to feelings of comfort, calm, mindfulness, uplift and joy. These descriptions were positive, empowering, and impactful, and correlate with comparable examples in prior studies, leading to the addition of Touchingto the Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics’ framework.
In addition to evidence of seven Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics, the Derby Museum study revealed overarching themes that were highly consistent with our prior studies, as well as several that are unique to the museum and its constituency. Those overarching themes composed a portrait of highly personalized human-object relationships within a thriving community-museum relationship. As with prior studies, the overarching themes speak to concepts of self-identity, objects as storytellers, objects bearing witness, and the museum as a place of nurturance in a myriad of ways. The theme of connectionwas a predominant concept as it has been in every study. Connection, as described by subjects in the Derby Museum interviews, included very specific references to self (awareness and identity), to family, to friends, to heritage, history, place, and to the museum. The applications of the concept in this study were broad in scope and powerful in their explicitness and depth of meaning.
The concept of objects giving permission has come up in prior studies but was especially prevalent in this study, where objects were described as providing an allowance for an individual to share their story, and to be “seen” or “heard.” These experiences were often linked with fond descriptions of the museum in turn allowing subjects to share, be seen and “leave their mark” via its participatory practices and ethos. Likewise particular were the concepts of mindfulness and descriptions of feelings of wellbeing. Here, subjects described objects being used as prompts for conversations to activate feelings of “being present,” and also as generating feelings associated with wellbeing such as respite, calm, love, acceptance, acknowledgement and a sense of “constancy.” Further details can be found at www.psychotherapeuticobjectdynamics.com